A free open source tool for decentralized mesh networks
The Commotion Wireless Project, once dubbed as an “Internet in a suitcase”, is one of the original tools designed to deploy decentralized mesh networks.
Today’s issue of Future Fibre could also double as a Future Tools issue as the focus is not so much on a community initiative, but rather on a tool that can be used by communities to help address connectivity issues. Similarly this tool is not new, nor is it focused on fibre, but it does provide a great example that we should include in our growing suite of case examples and models to learn from.
Ironically, this tool was created with funds from the US State Department to help circumvent attempts to shut down or control the Internet during protests in Middle Eastern countries once referred to as the Arab Spring.
The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.
The effort includes secretive projects to create independent cellphone networks inside foreign countries, as well as one operation out of a spy novel in a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington, where a group of young entrepreneurs who look as if they could be in a garage band are fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype “Internet in a suitcase.”
Financed with a $2 million State Department grant, the suitcase could be secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global Internet.
While the money came from the US government, it was spent by the Open Technology Institute, which is an initiative of the New America Foundation. The OTI has been active in areas of digital rights and community connectivity for much of the last decade. The Commotion Wireless Project is one of their most successful.
OTI works at the intersection of technology and policy to ensure that every community has equitable access to digital technology and its benefits. We promote universal access to communications technologies that are both open and secure, using a multidisciplinary approach that brings together advocates, researchers, organizers, and innovators.
Our current focus areas include surveillance, privacy and security, net neutrality, broadband access, and consumer privacy. OTI conducts data-driven research, develops policy and regulatory reforms, and builds real-world pilot projects to impact both public policy and physical communications infrastructure that people interact with every day.
The Open Technology Institute supports free expression and open technologies at home and around the world, and is committed to supporting engaged, self-sufficient communities by promoting safe and affordable access to connectivity. We view technology not as an end in and of itself, but a means.
As a tool the Commotion Wireless Project has been used in a range of situations and locales. However as a concept, it has helped raise the profile and possibility of mesh networking.
Mesh networking is a decentralized or bottom up approach to connecting computers. The Internet as we currently know it is not the one originally conceived by the nerds who invented it. They imagined a decentralized network (that could survive a nuclear war) rather than the highly centralized top down network architecture we currently use.
In North America we have a handful of Internet providers, who structure their networks in ways that benefit their business model, which in most cases tries to favour their content networks or their social media partners.
This is partly why many communities and rural residents have such poor Internet, the large telcos do not see such areas as profitable or worth their time. Yet a true decentralized network would make it easier for smaller companies and co-ops to connect and be part of the broader network of networks.
Similarly, centralized models are less efficient, than decentralized ones. For example if you’re a customer with Bell or Comcast or AT&T, all your traffic goes via their Central Offices or infrastructure, rather than direct to where you want it to go.
In contrast a mesh network routes traffic more efficiently. Imagine if you got your connection from your neighbour, who got it from their neighbour, who got it from theirs, and so on. So that the Internet was like a quilt, which each square connected to the ones adjacent to it, and the quilt went on as far as possible. That’s the potential of mesh networking.
The Commotion project was designed to make use of existing infrastructure and devices. In this sense it is somewhat limited, in that you’re not introducing new infrastructure to a community, but rather making the existing infrastructure more efficient, distributed, and spread out.
This is of particular interest to me in a rural setting as sometimes extended networks from neighbour to neighbour is the only short term option.
Although even this takes for granted that the hardware and devices we use can be reconfigured. There was recently a policy battle over whether that would even be possible.
ON THE COASTAL edge of Tunisia, a signal bounces between 11 rooftops and 12 routers, forming an invisible net that covers 70 percent of the city of Sayada. Strategically placed, the routers link together community centers—from the main street to the marketplace. Not long ago, the Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali government censored access to the Internet. The regime is gone now. And this free network gives the community unfettered access to thousands of books, secure chat and file sharing applications, street maps, and more.
The Sayada community network is part of the Open Technology Institute’s (OTI) Commotion Wireless project. The organization works with local groups to install mesh networks in communities across the globe—from New York to India. Commotion Wireless uses routers that utilize and extend (among other things) OpenWRT—an open source operating system with nonstandard features that make these unique networks possible. Reprogrammed and repurposed, the routers become something entirely new: a hub of information, a beacon of open access, and a symbol of freedom.
Now, the future of Commotion Wireless—and countless other programs and projects like it—might be in jeopardy. Proposed rules by the Federal Communications Commission have digital watchdogs and open source advocates worried that manufacturers will lock down routers, blocking the installation of third-party firmware—including open source software like OpenWRT and DD-WRT.
Thankfully such efforts did fail, and it remains quite possible and relatively easy to change the software that runs on your router.
Unfortunately the Commotion Project appears to be somewhat dormant. Their GitHub repository has not had any changes made since 2018, and the blog on their site has not been updated since 2015.
Similarly mesh networking, which was all the rage in the first half of the last decade, has not gained the traction that many of its proponents had hoped. While it has proliferated in the enterprise, it has not really taken off in neighbourhoods or communities, with some exceptions.
With that said, the Commotion Construction Kit remains a relevant and valuable resource.
Similarly the work of the OTI is as important as ever:
“Future Fibre” is a recurring series in the Metaviews newsletter where we share some of the research, other models, news, and ideas around community based connectivity. While the series is published via our newsletter, it’s also available via news.metaviews.ca/tag/fibre, so you can share the entire series with interested parties.
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Wireless mesh networks are also important during events like this: